The spicy smell of salep and the sound of frothing milk filled the air between the show tents. Vendors called out their products, bargained, and jeered at you if you ignored them or preferred their competitor’s baklava. Ophélie’s parents lapsed into an argument over by the stained glass jewelry. How come you never buy me anything pretty anymore? Why are you so vain? Why are you so cheap? Ophélie let go of her mother’s hand and escaped into the crowd. Before getting out of earshot she heard her father say: Do you read to your daughter with that mouth? Ophélie darted between couples and ducked under a donkey carrying carpets. Watch it, girl!
She walked up to a seated man smoking a pipe. Lemon glazed worry beads coiled between his fingers, quietly, snake-like, and when one bead snuck up on another they clicked like two billiard balls. She held up eight fingers, and then twisted her hands like she was changing a lightbulb: “Tent eight, where?” she was asking, without the words.
“What is at Tent Number Eight, young lady?” he asked, his lips still nursing his pipe.
“Les marionettes!” Ophélie said.
The man nodded at the tent behind her. In her rush she cut the link of children meandering through the marketplace in a dancing train. We’re not supposed to break the chain!
The cotton candy stand blocked most of the entrance to the marionette tent. Frozen waterfall; Wizard’s beard: the vendor tried to attract the attention of the rumbling passersby by calling out varieties of the confection’s name. Hair of a crone. Breath of a ghost.
Inside, the tent was vast. Nothing like the one Ophélie made at home out of the furniture, a few blankets, cushions, and pillows. The walls were dark cherry and had hanging ropes dripping with tassels that tempted you to tug them. It would not surprise her if a single pull summoned a host of servants or sounded a gong: the tent screamed lavish, royal.
When Ophélie looked up she couldn’t see the tent’s summit rather only rounded edges that appeared to be swirling higher and higher leaving her feeling dizzy and small. Pillows dyed in intense purples and deep blues sat arranged in front of the stage but she found their ornamental gold stitching almost too nice to sit on. Clustered in a corner was a group of girls Ophélie’s age admiring each other’s hair. Beside them sat an old couple complaining about the poor seating arrangements. It’s no wonder we all have bad backs!
Ophélie took a seat, crossing and uncrossing her legs, eager and anxious to be around puppets again. A whole band of puppets used to live in her room before they disappeared. Those puppets had been her only friends. Ophélie blamed herself for having insisted on playing the same games. “It’s for the best,” her mother had said, sharpening her pencils and comparing them under the desk light. Later in the evening, she overheard maman talking to papa in the kitchen: Ophélie is much too old to play with puppets.
Elle est arrivée. Ophélie looked around: did she hear French or had she automatically translated? It grew so dull living entirely in one language, she thought, feeling sorry for herself. No one speaks French here. Don’t you want to fit in? After her puppets ran away she realized it would have been unfair to ask them to stay. Her parents must have brought them home provided that they act lifeless, until one day they asked themselves, Why? And finding no satisfying answer, their wooden feet directed them out the window and down the drain pipe to a wider world.
As the curtain to the entrance draped shut, it left the tent in a nervous haze of rustling and anticipation. Some last-minuters filed in, teasing the audience with streams of light before letting the tent recline back into darkness. Ow, that was my toe! This seat is saved. Oh, sure, we get to sit behind the tall one. The bell sounded, shattered all murmurs, and the entire tent held its breath.
The candles set along the edges of the stage were lit: marking a silhouette within a silhouette of a stage. Marionettes were lowered from above, glancing at each other, making sure they were all present. Identical red and white uniforms were painted on their wooden bodies, seeming like a guard of some sort. As soon as they landed, they looked up, waited, and white flower petals showered onto the stage. White chairs were arranged upstage, with their backs to the audience, neatly placed for an event. Heavy footsteps alerted the marionettes: some hopped to their seats, others walked clumsily with their wooden limbs click-a-clack-clacking against the deck.
The next puppet that emerged seemed gigantic next to the guard of marionettes, but was still only half the height of his puppeteer. The puppeteer’s face was unmasked, rigid, and impassive as it focused solely on its subject. The puppet’s facial features were scrunched around its nose: small eyes, two thick flat lines for eyebrows, and a mouth sitting tightly below its nostrils. He seemed like one of those characters who always smelled something foul, who always found others to be beneath him. He stood stately and imposing with squared broad shoulders. He looked to enjoy being in command.
An organ prompted the entrance of another large puppet, a regal figure with a long neck; if anything, she looked the part of a Queen. She had high cheekbones and submerged cheeks as if she were sucking in her skin. Her large oval eyes were pretty but overshadowed by her eyebrows. They rose sharply to her temples and made her look stern and unyielding.
Three puppeteers emerged behind her, the two steeped in black to blend into the backdrop, the third a female master puppeteer with face unveiled. Three bodies synchronized for the Queen to glide across the stage, and to keep her slightly levitated. One puppeteer moved her legs, the other two controlled her arms, torso, and head. She wore a gilded white gown and met the other puppet at center stage. Together, they ascended upstage, up the aisle between the two groups of chairs. Then all four puppeteers shifted behind their respective puppets so the audience could see the couple stop and face each other—it was a wedding.
Ophélie thought it was more like a funeral: the ceremony proceeded in utter silence, and the guard, seated, bowed their heads as did the Queen, as if lamenting. As if this wasn’t at all what they had wanted but they would have to accept it all the same. Ophélie thought she saw what scared them; this male puppet had the air of a villain.
The stage went suddenly dark: people behind the curtains emerged to re-set the stage. When the candles were re-lit, the guard and chairs were gone and left alone were the two spouses, now enjoined, as signified by the arch of candles that enclosed them.
Husband asks wife for their first dance. He steps around her, first, marking his territory, ensuring she knows she’s his. Then, they circle each other, in a methodical, solitary waltz. His gaze is on her, hers always behind him. Her head tilts back, she poses, and her two shadow puppeteers rotate around her to lift her into a pirouette. The Queen leaps across the stage in a grand jeté with legs extended and her torso tall, momentarily eclipsing her husband to the audience. Her puppeteers keep a steady hold on her strings to prolong her flight and then gently, in a waving motion of the arms let her touch back down. As she travels the distance across the stage, with her puppeteers maneuvering around each other, her husband follows close behind, stumbling and ungraceful like a fool. The Queen, in contrast, thanks to the six hands controlling her, is ethereal, stepping lightly with poise. On her next pirouette, he pulls on her gown. One puppeteer lets go of a string and the gown releases and coils down her body. For only a moment, she falters. Then she soars over her husband’s head in a jeté. She extends her arms, wraps her hands around his strings and yanks them down. They both collapse. His master puppeteer relaxes his grip and the wooden control bar crashes to the stage. The thud of the fallen puppet reverberates through the audience for a long moment.
Ophélie’s hands shot to her face to cover her eyes. But her eyes remained open, peering, magnetized by what was happening. Defeated, as his puppet, the master puppeteer cowered, his face expressing first fright, then gloom, as he crossed the stage to exit. Ophélie was so taken with this man that she began to also feel the sadness etched on his face. But really, she felt bad not for the puppet itself but for the loss its death had made its puppeteer feel, who was clearly the only one on the stage who had loved him.
The Queen stood. She walked downstage to survey the crowd. Her languid glass eyes found Ophélie. Without looking away the Queen raised an arm, as a command, and a throne descended from above. It caught her weight when she leaned back, a rehearsed, effortless catch. Her two shadows left, no longer needed.
As the Queen kept her eyes on Ophélie, the Queen’s puppet master also watched Ophélie. The girl panicked. She suddenly felt lightheaded and a tug pulled on her belly button like an umbilical cord, like she was merging with the Queen. Was the Queen trying to tell her something? Ophélie felt a vague sense of floating and the woman grew closer and closer like a swelling image magnified until she imagined——
That she, Ophélie, stared down at the audience. The Queen was seated elegantly on the girl’s purple pillow, with a high neck and high brow, as if she didn’t truly belong in an audience but under a spotlight. It perplexed Ophélie how the Queen had exchanged places with her so seamlessly, slipping without fuss into the role of spectator. Behind, her faithful puppet master gripped the control bar with still hands now that her subject was not performing. Ophélie instead occupied the throne and attracted the attention.
Now she was big and they were small and she was in control while they all seemed like des petites marionettes that she could command.
This is how it feels to be powerful as a Queen, Ophélie thought. She liked it.
With their immobile eyes and rooted bodies the audience seemed lifeless: Ils ressemblent aux marionnettes! Ordinarily this would invoke her pity but not the way that they stared! She felt judged; she felt like, if given the chance, any moment now, they would condemn her, run her off the stage as an impostor and a fake; she was not a Queen, she was just a silly, powerless girl, they would say.
As one all heads tilted to the side. This surprised her enough to shove away her thoughts and pay closer attention to what was happening. The audience was acting strangely and it disturbed her. It occurred to Ophélie then to look up. Afraid but curious, she slowly tilted her head back to gaze overhead. Instinct being faster than reason and much harder to articulate, she already knew what she was about to see.
Lines of string connected to their skulls and arms. The entire audience was being controlled. Before it must have been that the bouncing, unpredictable breath of the candlelight had made the strings hard to see. It made Ophélie shudder; and she knew what she must do next: check her own neck. Frantically this time, and trembling, she took her hands to the base of her skull, where her sweaty fingers traced the crown of her head and down the sides of her neck.
No strings. She sighed. And with the simultaneous breaths of silhouettes shrouded in black, all candles, as if in one sweeping sigh of their own, let their flames go out.
Ophélie’s reverie had lasted to the end of the show. Mystified by the puppets (especially the Queen) she followed the rising audience outside. People exchanged awe and criticism before dispersing into the marketplace. The cotton candy lady was still shouting. Pink Delight. A deeper voice caused her to jump; the man with the pipe twirled his worry beads and called out from across the way. “Marionettes?” he spoke in a broken accent of French, one of imitation rather than comprehension; he was trying, at least, to speak Ophélie’s language. She appreciated that.
“Belles,” Ophélie said and rushed to where she’d left her parents.
She spotted maman gesturing generously as if wishing papa into a bubbling cauldron. “Lovely, Tereza, do you read to your daughter with that mouth?” he said. Ophélie stepped between them to arouse their attention. You weren’t thinking about wandering off, were you? Someone could snatch you up!
Ophélie looked squeamishly around, still unsettled by her experience at the tent. There are some things little girls can’t yet understand, her father had told her once—she didn’t remember the occasion now… Maybe that’s what the Queen had been trying to tell her: One day, when you’re a woman, you’ll understand.
Look what we found, her mother said, interrupting her thoughts.
As soon as Ophélie saw, she screamed. Both her parents wore masks. One face looked like it was covered in gauze. Unbleached calico cotton spotted with blotches of faded white paint. It had impressively pronounced, realistic features; the cavities of the eyes, unfilled and splattered with white paint were especially haunting though. The other mask was of a long face whose one side bulged from the temple. Its eyes were crooked half-moons that curved all the way to the cheekbones; Ophélie had to look away because their blackness was so textured and engrossing that she felt it could be hypnotizing. The nose was thin, long, and flat, and ended at dainty pale lips. What’s the matter? We thought you’d like them. They’re the faces of retired puppets.
Puppets that were as close to ruin as possible.
Retired puppets must bear the saddest stories. What had they done to deserve their faces sliced off and served hollow as ornaments? Ophélie started to feel faint and that odd tug at her belly button. The voices of her parents faded as if regressing into the busy marketplace. She thought back to the tent—could it be that what she’d seen in there was also true out here? It would explain why she was so different from everyone else. She was about to look up when her mother’s rough hand grabbed hers.
Come Ophélie, it’s time to go. Her mother’s wedding band was cold against her skin. “How did I get here?” Ophélie said. How did I end up with you? is what she meant. Just as the oblivious audience had acted in the tent, her parents pretended not to understand, and led her out of the marketplace. Outside the marketplace bustle, in a place inhabited by no vendors or tents or donkeys or puppets, there was a lonelier place they called home.